The Royal Succession

In Williamson County, there's always an incumbent prosecutor

In the mid-Seventies, Williamson Co. did not have the same law-and-order reputation that it does today. Back then, longtime area lawyers remember, it wasn't uncommon to secure probation for a myriad of charges – including felony drug charges similar to those that the Taylor nine currently face, or those that earned Paul Morrow and Carl Clay Wright deferred adjudication. But that changed once the Legislature made the district attorney's job a full-time paid gig. In 1976, Williamson Co. voters elected Ed Walsh for the job.

Shortly after Walsh assumed his post, veteran Austin defense attorney James Anderson went in for a talk with the new prosecutor: Anderson had a client charged with drug possession, and was looking for a deal. Under Walsh's predecessor Norman Manning (now a defense attorney), his client would've gotten probation, Anderson said. But Walsh wasn't offering; rather, the new DA wanted to see the case go to trial, because, Anderson recalled, he wanted to know what jurors thought the crime was "worth." And with that, Anderson said, the county was on its way to earning a reputation as a law-and-order community that is "tough on crime." Walsh made appearances at community meetings, "preaching about more support for jurors," and the office began to limit its plea offers.

In 1980, Walsh hired Ken Anderson, who five years later was appointed to replace his mentor as the county's top prosecutor when Walsh resigned his post to run for attorney general. Under Anderson the county solidified its law-and-order rep and continued to refuse probation for drug dealers and home burglars. "If the DA's not going to be the leader and is not going to set the tone ... it's not going to get done," Anderson told the Statesman. "I don't win jury trials by majority votes; I win them by unanimous verdicts."

In 1989, Anderson hired prosecutor John Bradley away from the Harris Co. DA's office, where he'd worked for three years. Bradley – whom friends and foes alike consider "extremely" ambitious, smart, and "zealous" – rose steadily through the ranks, and in 1996 became Anderson's first assistant. In December 2001, Anderson resigned his position to accept a county judicial appointment, and Bradley was tapped by Gov. Rick Perry to assume the job as the county's top prosecutor, where he continues to carry the law-and-order torch ignited by Walsh.

Arguably, promoting the tough-on-crime approach has become a requirement for those seeking the job of Williamson DA – a job that has become, in effect, an executive appointment in the county. Since 1985, the county's DAs have been handpicked to assume the throne, which critics say has had the effect of trumping the democratic process. "That's the setup," said one resident involved with county law enforcement, "so that [the DA] is always running as an incumbent. They've made it nearly impossible for anyone to run against them."

Indeed, Anderson told the Statesman that his decision to seek judicial appointment was an easy one because he'd "groomed" Bradley to take over. "There's some continuity there that's really important to the judicial system in the county," Anderson said. "I think the governor ... knows that John [Bradley] was a big contributor to what we've accomplished in the DA's office. He's indicated that he would like to see that continue." Austin attorney James Anderson knows this first hand. He ran against Bradley in the 2002 Republican primary. "I did it because it's a democracy and no one should be anointed to a position," he said. "The way it had been working they'd just appoint DAs and pass it down. And they'll probably do it again, but I won't be involved."

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